Sugar in Soda: The Best and Worst Offenders
It is widely known that most soda is incredibly packed with sugar. For example, one 12-ounce can of coke contains 39 grams of sugar. According to the American Heart Association, most men should not exceed 36 grams of sugar in their diet every day. For women, the recommendation is to stick to under 25 grams every day.
So, which sodas are the worst for you, and which ones are the best? Unfortunately the list of bad offenders is a lot longer than the list of good options. First, we’re going to break down all of the ingredients you find in traditional soda and make things as clear as that can of Sprite.
Sugar in Soda
Let’s start with sugar. This is the big one. As mentioned previously, one 12-ounce can of Coca Cola contains more sugar than any of us should be consuming in an entire day. Other sodas are just as bad. Whether soda or not, sugar-laden beverages are dangerous for a multitude of reasons. They not only increase your risk of heart disease, but can contribute to weight gain and type-2 diabetes,1 and it only takes one soda can a day to increase your risk of fatal heart disease by 35 percent, states the American Heart Association.2
Added Sugar versus Naturally Occurring Sugars
Are all sugary drinks created equal? Do fruit juices made with natural sugars compare to sodas with added sugar? Good question, and to sort things out, here’s the difference between added and natural sugar:
- Added sugars are anything that does not naturally occur in a food or drink, like high fructose corn syrup.
- Natural sugars, no surprise, do occur naturally in food and include options like the fructose you find in fruit or the lactose you find in milk.
These were not added in after the fact. It gets a little confusing when you think of natural sugars, like honey or maple syrup. They’re natural, but when they’re added into a food, well, they become added sugars.
The bottom line is you shouldn’t be eating a lot of either, but you’ll get a lot of natural sugars by eating healthy foods like fruit, vegetables, and dairy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Those foods also have other benefits, like vitamins, protein, and fiber. So worry less about natural sugars, because it probably means you’re getting good stuff too, and worry more about added sugars, as you’ll find in soda.
Other Ingredients in Soda
Now, sugar isn’t the only ingredient that should leave you raising your eyebrows. If you’ve ever looked at the ingredients list on the back of the can, your eyes may have glazed over at the number of items you don’t recognize, and may not even be able to pronounce. Here’s a breakdown of some common “mystery ingredients.”
Caramel color is a food coloring often added to sodas like colas and root beers to lend a darker hue. It’s made with ammonium compounds, which can, in the manufacturing process, form a chemical compound called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI).3 In 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that a study that fed large quantities of MEI to rats implied that the compound could be “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”4 But a 2020 report by the FDA dismissed concerns about caramel color, claiming that “the FDA has no reason to believe that there are any immediate or short-term health risks presented by 4-MEI at the levels expected in food.”5 The FDA also specifies that 4-MEI also forms in other cooking processes, like when coffee beans are roasted or meat is grilled. Okay, somewhat less mysterious, now.
Bisphenol-A, more commonly known as BPA, is a chemical that has caused quite a stir. In the 1990s, animal and epidemiological studies found that BPA in aluminum soda cans and packaging was linked to breast and prostate cancer, fertility issues, genital defects, diabetes and changes in behavior.6 As expected, nobody enjoyed hearing this unsettling news and although the FDA stated the chemical poses no risk at the levels to which we are exposed,7 Europe, Canada, and the US banned it from being used to make baby bottles. Additionally, California requires that it be labeled on cans.
Brominated Vegetable Oil
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is another additive with a bad reputation. BVO typically is used as an additive to keep ingredients from separating out. However, major companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi have removed it from their ingredients lists in recent years because of concerns over bromine, which has been shown to cause some neurological issues over time. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Long-term exposure can cause neurologic symptoms such as headache, memory loss, and impaired balance or coordination.”8 Currently, the FDA has issued a regulation for “the interim use” of the additive under 15 parts per million, and most beverages that contain it have closer to 8 parts per million.9 Still the temporary nature of the regulation indicates that more research is necessary on this ingredient.
Another additive that’s caused concern over the years is Yellow-5. Also known as tartrazine, Yellow Five does what its name suggests: colors foods and drinks a yellow hue -- see Mountain Dew as an example. However, in 2017, the Food Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization concluded that it wasn’t a risk when consumed on occasion.10
Phosphoric acid is a colorless, odorless liquid that’s used to give a tangy flavor to soda and to help ward off bacteria growth. Phosphorus actually occurs naturally in the body, and we need a certain amount of it to support our kidneys and help keep our bones strong. But too much of it could put you at risk for osteoporosis and heart disease.11
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Here’s one you’ve heard of before—but it’s not healthier because of that. It’s the product that results from breaking down cornstarch into individual glucose molecules, and it’s a common ingredient in soda. Though it’s chemically similar to cane sugar and more research is needed to determine whether or not it’s worse for you than other sugars, obesity rates have climbed as use of high fructose corn syrup has increased.12 And, as stated above, the recommended levels of added sugar don’t leave room for a lot of this stuff. Proceed with caution or better yet, find a different option.
We’re guessing you know this one if you’re a diet soda drinker. While it’s not calorie-free, it’s about 200 times sweeter than conventional sugar, so very little is needed. Over the years, studies have raised concerns about the synthetic chemical, linking it to stroke, dementia and Alzheimer's disease; seizures; headaches and migraines; and cancer.13 The FDA, meanwhile, calls it one of the most studied ingredients and says it’s only a concern for those with a rare hereditary disease called phenylketonuria (PKU).14
Another artificial sweetener, sucralose is what you might recognize as Splenda®. It’s about 600 times sweeter than sugar! The FDA has approved this one too as an all-purpose sweetener (and one that can be heated, too, so it can be used in baking).14
Less recognizable, perhaps, than the previous two, this here is yet another artificial sweetener you’ll find in diet sodas. Though it’s been used and studied less than aspartame and sucralose, the FDA says that “more than 90 studies support its safety.”14
Here’s the sweetener behind Sweet and Low®, Sweet Twin®, Sweet'N Low®, and Necta Sweet®. Also approved by the FDA, it’s one of the older artificial sweeteners, but you may have heard complaints about a bitter aftertaste, which might be part of the reason other sweeteners seem to have eclipsed this one in recent years.
Moving away from the sweeteners, sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP) is an emulsifier added to a range of foods, including soda, to add texture and extend shelf life.
Then there’s Sodium Benzoate, another preservative that’s added to prolong shelf life. However, in the 1990s the FDA started reviewing soft drinks that also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or erythorbic acid, because the combination could create an environment where the chemical benzene—a carcinogen that can cause cancer–could form. Since then, manufacturers have redesigned their products to limit or eliminate the formation of benzine.14
Finally, citric acid, an ingredient you may be able to pronounce, but that you might not be able to put your finger on. This one occurs naturally in citrus fruits and is also used as a preservative and for flavor.15 If you’re drinking soda, chances are you’ll find citric acid in there, because according to a 2018 report in Toxicology Reports, it’s the world’s most widely used food additive.16 Good thing it’s FDA-approved.
Sodas with the most sugar
So, now that you’ve familiarized yourself a little with that host of additives, let’s revisit the more familiar culprit: sugar. Which sodas have the most sugar? Consider this your cheat sheet. Here’s how much sugar is contained in a 12 ounce portion of these familiar sodas:
170 calories and 46 grams of sugar
160 calories and 44 grams of sugar
150 calories and 41 grams of sugar
150 calories and 40 grams of sugar
140 calories and 39 grams of sugar
While it is true that fruit juice contains natural sugar, it is a better choice for your health vs. regular soda thanks to the additional nutrients that it provides. For example, while a glass of 100% orange juice does contain added sugars, it also contains vitamin C, folate, thiamin, and natural polyphenols that have been shown to support heart health and reduce inflammation.17 As long as you are choosing juice that does not contain added sugars and you are not drinking excessive quantities, some juice added to an overall healthy diet can be a safe choice.
OLIPOP: The better soda
This has been a lot, but don’t let it leave a bad taste in your mouth. OLIPOP, the new healthy soda that comes in fun, vintage flavors, presents a simple choice. It’s good for you, made with ingredients you can pronounce, and simply delicious. And where the list of sodas above hover around 40 grams of sugar per 12 ounce serving, OLIPOP contains just 2-5 grams per serving. Enough said.
There is undoubtedly a lot of sugar—and other suspect ingredients—in most soda. So when you’ve got healthy alternatives like OLIPOP, don’t think twice.
- “Fructose and Cardiometabolic Health: What the Evidence from Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tells Us.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2015. https://www.jacc.org/doi/full/10.1016/j.jacc.2015.08.025.
- Pacheco, Lorena S., James V. Lacey, Maria Elena Martinez, Hector Lemus, Maria Rosario G. Araneta, Dorothy D. Sears, Gregory A. Talavera, and Cheryl A. M. Anderson. “Sugar‐Sweetened Beverage Intake and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in the California Teachers Study.” Journal of the American Heart Association 9, no. 10 (May 18, 2020). https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.119.014883.
- Smith, Tyler J. S., Julia A. Wolfson, Ding Jiao, Michael J. Crupain, Urvashi Rangan, Amir Sapkota, Sara N. Bleich, and Keeve E. Nachman. “Caramel Color in Soft Drinks and Exposure to 4-Methylimidazole: A Quantitative Risk Assessment.” Edited by Maciej Buchowski. PLOS ONE 10, no. 2 (February 18, 2015): e0118138. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118138.
- “Caramel Color in Soda May Be a Health Risk - Consumer Reports.” Consumerreports.org, 2013. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/01/caramel-color-the-health-risk-that-may-be-in-your-soda/index.htm.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Questions & Answers about 4-MEI.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-answers-about-4-mei.
- To replace controversial plastic additive BPA, a chemical company teams up with unlikely allies. “To Replace Controversial Plastic Additive BPA, a Chemical Company Teams up with Unlikely Allies.” Science | AAAS, January 23, 2020. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/replace-controversial-plastic-additive-bpa-chemical-company-teams-unlikely-allies.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Bisphenol a (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/bisphenol-bpa-use-food-contact-application.
- “What Is BVO and Why Is It in My Soda?” Mayo Clinic. , 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/bvo/faq-20058236.
- Richardson, Ian. “Fact Check: PepsiCo Pulls Contentious BVO from Mountain Dew but It Isn’t a Flame Retardant.” USA TODAY. USA TODAY, May 28, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/05/28/fact-check-mountain-dew-free-bvo-but-isnt-flame-retardant/5235571002/.
- https://www.facebook.com/WebMD. “What to Know about Yellow 5 Food Dye.” WebMD. WebMD, May 17, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-to-know-yellow-5-food-dye#1.
- Tucker, Katherine L, Kyoko Morita, Ning Qiao, Marian T Hannan, L Adrienne Cupples, and Douglas P Kiel. “Colas, but Not Other Carbonated Beverages, Are Associated with Low Bone Mineral Density in Older Women: The Framingham Osteoporosis Study.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 84, no. 4 (October 1, 2006): 936–42. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/84.4.936.
- Faruque, S., Tong, J., Lacmanovic, V., Agbonghae, C., Minaya, D. M., & Czaja, K. (2019). The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States – a Review. Polish Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences, 69(3), 219–233. https://doi.org/10.31883/pjfns/110735
- Malkan, Stacy. “Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks.” U.S. Right to Know. US Right to Know, May 31, 2019. https://usrtk.org/sweeteners/aspartame_health_risks/.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2020. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states.
- Booth, Stephanie. “Citric Acid.” WebMD. WebMD, September 11, 2019. https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-is-citric-acid#1.
- Chen, Lesley. “What Drinks Do Not Contain Citric Acid?” LIVESTRONG.COM. Livestrong.com, July 31, 2010. https://www.livestrong.com/article/189520-what-drinks-do-not-contain-citric-acid/.
- “FoodData Central.” Usda.gov, 2021. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169098/nutrients.
- Most regular soda is laden with sugar, which may increase your risk of heart disease, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.
- The list of additives in conventional soda can be excessive.
- Mountain Dew contains 46 grams per 12 ounce serving, while OLIPOP contains just 2-5 grams.
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